The Brutal Murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket: Blood on the Flagstones

Discover the impact that Thomas Becket’s death had on medieval England.

Oct 7, 2023By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

thomas becket archbishop murder


Throughout English history, there have been some very famous deaths that include members of royalty, the nobility, and royal favourites: Piers Gaveston, Princess Diana, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas Cranmer to name just a few. However, few have had the shock factor or the impact that Thomas Becket’s death had on King Henry II and the rest of medieval England in the twelfth century.


Early Life: Who was Thomas Becket?

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Thomas Becket, from the Bolton Hours, York Minster, via York Minster.


Thomas Becket was born around 1119 – 1120 in Cheapside, London, England. His parents were both Normans, who had settled in England in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. Becket received a London education in his early years, before going to Paris when he was aged around 20. Unfortunately, his father came into financial trouble around this time, forcing Thomas to move back to England as he could no longer support him. Thomas returned to England and decided to make a living as a clerk.


Around 1142, Thomas acquired a position in the household of Theobald of Canterbury, who was then the Archbishop of Canterbury. Theobald then entrusted Thomas with several missions to Rome, before sending him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law.


By 1154, the same year that Henry II was crowned as the first Plantagenet king of England, Thomas Becket had been made Archdeacon of Canterbury. His hard work and efficiency in this role led Theobald to put Becket’s name forward to the new king for the vacant position of Lord Chancellor.

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Becket as Lord Chancellor

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King Henry II of England, c. 1260, via National Portrait Gallery, London


Taking heed of Theobald’s word, Henry II appointed Becket as Lord Chancellor in January 1155. Becket excelled in this role too, and became very close friends with Henry.


As well as his role as Chancellor, Becket loyally served Henry as a statesman and a diplomat, and on one occasion even as a soldier: it was reported that he led a troop of soldiers against the French during an attempt to regain Aquitaine — the lands in the south of France where Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was from.


It has been suggested that during this period, Becket acted almost as an advisor to Henry, who was twelve years younger than him, and that Becket may even have been behind many of the king’s reforms during this period. He had the outward appearance of an intelligent, well-educated clerical man, but he nonetheless fit in with the extravagance and pomp of the early Plantagenet court, and he even supported Henry II in some of his aggrievances with the Church.


Theobald’s Death and a New Archbishop of Canterbury

Pope Alexander III bids farewell to Thomas Becket, by Matthew Paris, via Wikimedia Commons.


Theobald of Canterbury died in 1161, aged around 70 years old. Because of their relationship that they had built up over the years, Henry II suggested that Thomas Becket should take Theobald’s place as Archbishop of Canterbury. It was to become one of the most important moves that King Henry II ever made — and one of the most costly, which transformed English history forever.


It was almost as though Becket could foresee the danger of appointing a friend to the then second-most important post in the country, and he initially resisted the offer. Becket himself even reportedly warned Henry about the dangers of doing so, acknowledging that their friendship would be compromised. In addition, he knew that Henry was seeking certain ecclesiastical privileges, and Becket warned him that he would not be able to grant them to him if he was to become Archbishop of Canterbury.


Cardinal Henry of Pisa encouraged Becket to accept this new and important position, on the basis that it was important for Christianity that he accept it. Reluctantly, he accepted to become a senior churchman in England. At this point, he was still only a deacon, but on Saturday June 2nd 1162, he was ordained as a priest. He was then consecrated as archbishop the next day.  Despite Thomas Becket’s warnings, Henry II still thought that his friend would prove a strong ally to him as Archbishop of Canterbury.


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River Stour, Canterbury, England, photo by Diliff, via Wikimedia Commons


Becket did not play the part that Henry had wanted him to. Instead, he played the role as he should have — seriously, and with a huge regard toward the Catholic Church and Rome rather than the state. Thomas Becket himself was even quoted as reforming his own self, from “a patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds, to being a shepherd of souls.” Becket settled into the role well, taking his responsibilities very seriously. He even lived austerely and was generous with almsgiving — the act of giving gifts of money to the financially poor and needy.


Thomas Becket and King Henry Clash

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Stained glass window depicting Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral, c. 13th century, via Wikimedia Commons.


His first clash with Henry came when he resigned the Chancellorship, shortly after being ordained as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. During this period, there were many points of contention between both King Henry II and Thomas Becket, ranging from taxation laws to the state of Henry’s soul, but perhaps most crucially, the two differed over the relative rights and responsibilities of the Church and of clergymen who were convicted of crimes.


In January 1164, Henry summoned a council at Clarendon, and presented the bishops of the land with a document known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. This document outlined a clear statement of Henry’s customary rights over the Church, and he required the bishops to observe these rights that he had set out. Becket argued over the Constitutions for two whole days, before eventually backing down and reluctantly accepting them.


A contemporary chronicler reported that at one point during these debates, Thomas Becket held up a crucifix to Henry, to remind him where his personal loyalties lay. Henry was furious, which likely led to Becket accepting the Constitutions, and then the latter fled to France out of fear.


Becket in France

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Henry II and Philip Augustus take the Cross, 14th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Henry II is often regarded as one of England’s greatest ever kings, and part of the reason why he is because he was not just a hot-headed, ruthless leader — he was an intelligent king and knew when to act and when to bide his time (for the most part).


Upon Thomas Becket’s disappearance to France in 1164, Henry decided not to pursue him, but instead took advantage of the disappearance. He concentrated on English matters over the next five years, while also conquering Brittany and overhauling the English judicial system — something which would have been far more difficult had Becket still been around.


In 1169, conversations begun to be held about the coronation of the heir to the throne. Henry had eight legitimate children with his wife Eleanor, seven of whom had survived infancy and past their early childhood (the only exception being their first-born son, William, who had died aged 2 in 1156). Of the seven children, four were sons and three were daughters.


Traditionally, the succession was debated between the King, the Pope, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. When Becket discovered that the negotiations had taken place without him, he returned to England in 1170 with one aim: to punish those who had taken part.


Thomas Becket, the “Turbulent Priest”

thomas becket murder
Murder of Thomas Becket, c. 13th century, Wikimedia Commons


Upon finding out that Thomas Becket had once again returned to England, King Henry II supposedly uttered some of the most famous words in medieval history: “Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?” This is likely a contemporary translation of what Henry said, it has been contended that he actually said, “What miserable drones and traitors I have nurtured, within my household, that they let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”


Regardless of what he said, or how he said it, whether he meant it literally or metaphorically, the point was nevertheless clear as day: he wanted rid of Thomas Becket. That was certainly what four knights (Hugh de Morville, Reginald Fitzurse, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton) who were sitting at the back of room thought, as Henry uttered those words. Henry II was a king known to succumb to outbursts of temper, but on this occasion, the knights took him seriously — they would indeed rid Henry II of Thomas Becket.


Thomas Becket’s Death

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An ivory carving depicting the four knights ready to murder Thomas Becket, c. 12th century, Wikimedia Commons


On the night of December 29th 1170, the four knights who had been present when Henry uttered his infamous words, arrived at Canterbury Cathedral. Inside, they found Thomas Becket, praying at the altar. How Becket was murdered was unclear, but he was slaughtered brutally, with his brains allegedly scattered all over the floor. The knights symbolically left Becket in a pool of his own blood at the foot of the altar. Surprisingly, the knights who committed the murder were not killed themselves — they eventually escaped to Rome, where the Pope ordered them to serve as soldiers for 14 years.


The Aftermath of Thomas Becket’s Death

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Thomas Becket Fresco, from the Santa Mari Terrassa, by Enfo, via Wikimedia Commons


Following Becket’s death, Europe went into turmoil. The period became known as the Crisis of 1170. According to some accounts, Pope Alexander III refused to speak to any Englishman for a week. Henry II, on the other hand, was so distressed that he ate his bedsheets. But perhaps the most significant element of Becket’s death is that he was murdered in a Church — in a House of God. Some contemporaries even saw this as equivalent to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.


The death of Thomas Becket sent a ripple of shockwaves through England, too — and it would dominate the remaining eighteen years of Henry II’s reign. Eleanor of Aquitaine moved back to France, and Henry fled to Ireland in October 1171, and stayed there for the remainder of the year, hoping to avoid all the chaos.


On February 21st 1173, Pope Alexander III canonized Thomas Becket, and Saint Thomas was now glorified by the Church as a martyr. Henry knew there was no escaping the martyrdom, and began his penance in 1174. He punished himself by getting whipped by the monks of Canterbury, and acknowledged his wrongdoing during the Crisis of 1170 — which as well as seeming a genuine apology, worked wonders for him as a propaganda move.


Becket’s shrine at Canterbury had become one of Europe’s most popular pilgrimage sites from his death until it was destroyed during the Reformation in the sixteenth century under Henry VIII. Apparently 703 miracles had been reported at Becket’s shrine in the ten years after his death.


canterbury cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral, by Antonthy McCallum, via Wikimedia Commons


A cult around Becket was sparked in the Middle Ages, with further reports of miracles happening at his tomb, and even being referenced in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where pilgrims visit his shrine at Canterbury. It is clear that Thomas Becket’s death was one of the biggest turning points in English history, and that it undoubtedly affected King Henry II for the remainder of his reign as king of England.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.